Russia is notorious for its multitude of environmental problems inherited from the Soviet era -- massive oil spills, dangerously leaky radioactive waste, polluted lakes. Now environmentalists have further cause to mourn -- a new presidential decree has placed the country's environmental protection agency under control of the ministry responsible for mining. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.
Moscow, 24 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a rare show of solidarity, Russian environmentalists have united with bureaucrats to condemn a presidential decree they say eradicates independent environmental control in Russia. They are calling upon Russian authorities to cancel the move.
The decree, published on Friday (May 19), does away with the State Committee on Environment and the State Committee on Forestry and transfers their responsibilities to the Ministry for Natural Resources. The decision came in a wave of measures designed to slim down the government.
At a press conference yesterday (Tuesday), representatives from Greenpeace, the environment committee, and the Duma all deplored the move. Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, the head of the State Committee on Environment, charged that the abolition of his agency shows that Russia has distanced itself from the civilized world.
"This decree is a call for action for all those who want to steal from the environment. This points [the finger] at the system of environmental protection and gives [thieves] the signal to move. This is what [the decree] is."
Danilov-Danilyan says the decree is a result of lobbying by polluting industries that did not want an ecological watch-dog looking over their shoulder.
"Who needed this in the first place? The only one who needs this is whoever is dreaming secretly about the end of an independent environmental control agency, whoever wants to tame it, to make it obedient. To put an end to negative verdicts by the ecological experts."
With its 89 regional offices, the State Committee on Environment was a powerful agency, responsible for ensuring that industrial, agricultural, and energy companies did not harm the environment. Last year, the committee made 72,000 appraisals, one-third of which were negative and entailed the abandonment or adaptation of the project.
Danilov-Danilyan said the Ministry for Natural Resources, which will take over responsibility for ensuring protection of the environment, is an agency concerned only with exploiting Russia's oil, gas, and mineral wealth. The ministry has no incentive to block environmentally damaging projects, he said.
"The money-making activity of the Ministry of Natural Resources has to be the object of environmental control and all the projects of this activity, including prospecting and drilling is the object of ecological appraisal. Naturally the worse sin you can let commit in implementing state control is to entrust this control to the [organ] that actually is the object of control."
He cited a pending case on the construction of a (Yumaguzinskoe) reservoir on the Belaya River in Bashkortostan.
Danilov-Danilyan says the project, which had been rejected already in Soviet times, had been relaunched by the Bashkir government in violation of the committee's ruling. The committee then condemned the project for its ecological risks, notably to a national park nearby. But Bashkortostan continued the exploitation, Danilov-Danilyan says, with the support of the Ministry for Natural Resources.
The Ministry for Natural Resources told RFE/RL that it is too early to comment on the possible abolition of the State Committee for Environment. Ministry spokeswoman Tamara Romanovskaya said the presidential decree cannot be considered as final. She said changes could come up in the next few days.
The deputy head of the Duma committee on environment, Aleksandr Kosarikov, said at the press conference today that Russia desperately needs an agency solely devoted to environmental protection. Kosarikov described what would happen if the Volga River were to experience a similar accident as the cyanide spill at a Romania gold mine last January, which contaminated the Tisa and Danube rivers. The Volga river basin is three times the size of Poland.
"What would be the 'Tisa effect' on the Volga? Over there [in Romania], 14 villages were left without any drinking water. So the water to the Tisa [settlements] was carried by trucks and they managed to give water to everyone. Imagine such a catastrophe in the Volga basin where half of Russia's population is concentrated. You'll never be able to carry water to them by truck, and the superficial waters of the Volga basin are the only source of water [there]. So if we lift control [over environmental] issues by taking away the specialized agency, we may be putting the country on the brink of catastrophe."
Kosarikov says the abolition of the environment agency is just the latest step in a series of government moves that have weakened environmental protection. The agency responsible for environmental protection was downgraded in recent years from a ministry to a state committee.